As I’ve explained, attachment styles can best be understood by combining the way people relate to themselves (which can create anxiety) and to others (which can result in avoidance). By dividing the dimensions of anxiety and avoidance into high and low, the following four possible combinations are created:
Preoccupied: High Anxiety, Low Avoidance
Fearful: High Anxiety, High Avoidance
Dismissing: Low Anxiety, High Avoidance
Secure: Low Anxiety, Low Avoidance
The original research in attachment theory labeled the attachment styles as being categorically different from each other—just as a woman and a fish are categorically different, unless you are given to believing in mermaids. However, current research research (Griffin and Bartholomew, 1994) shows that this simply isn’t true. Instead, different attachment styles represent “blurry” groups that reveal tendencies, but should not be taken too literally.
Combining levels of avoidance and anxiety works a lot like mixing two primary colors. Red and yellow make orange. However, adding just a little yellow to red creates an orange-red;
and adding just a little red to yellow creates an orange-yellow.
A similar dynamic occurs with the two dimensions of attachment. Consider Ann, who is high in
anxiety and very low in avoidance, and Dan, who is also high in anxiety but just a little low in avoidance. As you can see, both people have a preoccupied style of attachment. However, Dan is more similar to people with a fearful style.
Along a similar line of thinking, you might belong more in the dismissing or secure category of attachment, but be closer to the anxious end of that grouping. In that case, you will relate to many of
the struggles of anxiously attached people without actually being clearly anxiously attached. For this reason, you will also benefit.
By understanding the “blurriness” of these groupings, you will be able to use this book more effectively. It is tempting to assess your style of attachment and then pigeonhole yourself. For instance, you might think of yourself as having a preoccupied or fearful attachment style.
However, you would not be taking all aspects of you—the unique person that you are—into account. The best way to reduce your relationship anxiety and improve yourself is based largely on self-understanding.
So when you read about the four attachment styles, think about how much you relate to each one, not just which category you fit in.
It’s also important to recognize that your attachment style can change with experience. For instance, consider Heather. She had always felt inadequate as a person, and exhibited a preoccupied attachment
style. Her husband, Alan, reinforced this feeling with his frequent focus on her mistakes and shortcomings. He eventually divorced her, leaving her to struggle even more with a deeper sense of being unlovable. But with therapy she began seriously questioning this negative view of herself. For instance, she was able to realize that Alan had been overly critical. Then she met Sam, who valued her thoughtfulness and creativity. She basked in his love and warmth, which melted her remaining self-rejection and helped her to feel more comfortable with being valued by someone else. Romantic relationships often serve as a special opportunity for you to revise your attachment style so as
to be healthier—an opportunity that this book can help you to realize.
In addition to assessing your own style of attachment, think about the other styles, too. Consider the styles of your current or past partners, or even your friends and colleagues. Your attachment-related
anxiety can prompt you to make quick, and often inaccurate, emotional judgments of others. As a result, you might misunderstand your partner’s emotions, struggles, and behaviors. This can cause significant problems in your relationship. By understanding your partner’s attachment style better, you can understand him and the dynamics between the two of you better. Also, by having a good grasp of secure attachment, you can understand the benefits of working toward this for yourself and you can understand how having a securely attached partner can help you.
One last important caveat before you read about the attachment styles: A simple reading of these styles will leave you with the impression that the only “good” way to have a healthy relationship is to have a secure attachment style. This impression would be wrong. The “best” way to attach is to have a romantic relationship that makes you happy. If you tend toward having a preoccupied style of attachment and are married to someone who also has that tendency, but the two of you are happy—then trust in that. Enjoy it. Your style and life circumstance are right for you. As it happens, one significant way (but not the only way) of finding happiness in your relationship when you are unhappy is to move toward a more secure style. But as you evaluate your life and what you might want to change, it is important that you keep your eye on the real “prize”: happiness in love.
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